Philadelphia Jewish Federation Faces Crisis as Ira Schwartz Abruptly Leaves

Continuity Elusive at Top of Nation's No. 6 Community

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published May 15, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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In its announcement of Schwartz’s departure, the federation noted that he had raised $13.5 million for an “Israel Emergency Campaign,” among other achievements.

Yet the federation still trails its peers in fundraising. Philadelphia’s federation raised $26.3 million in 2011, the latest year for which data is available. That’s compared with $132 million raised that year by the federation in Boston and $115 million raised that year by the federation serving San Francisco and the surrounding area. Each of three regions are home to roughly 200,000 Jews.

Meanwhile, Schwartz earned $430,000 in 2011, more than the top executives of all but four Jewish federations in the United States, according to the Forward’s latest salary survey of Jewish communal executives.

Insiders and observers attribute the weak fundraising to a communal culture in Philadelphia that far predates Schwartz’s arrival at the federation.

“We have trouble finding people to be campaign chairmen,” one former volunteer leader said, noting that volunteer positions are difficult to fill. “If this was a baseball team, we don’t have a big bench.”

A former federation staff member, who asked not to be named to protect relationships, laid blame on a lay leadership that has prioritized personal concerns. “It’s been weaker professional leadership, and it’s been lay leadership who are very much more backyard-oriented than…[oriented towards] collective responsibility,” the former staff member said.

Burt Siegel, a former head of Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council who worked briefly under Schwartz before retiring, attributed that lack of volunteers to the relatively low communal status afforded to federation leaders in Philadelphia. Boldfaced names seek such leadership positions in other cities, like James S. Tisch at the UJA-Federation of New York did in the 1990s, and Myra Kraft at the CJP in Boston did before she died in 2011. Yet prominent and wealthy city leaders have been less likely to push for those roles in the Philadelphia federation.

“Because of the relatively low status of federation top-level leadership [in Philadelphia], there are affluent people who’d rather play on the board of the orchestra or the art museum… [and where] there is some real status,” Siegel said.

Contributing to that reluctance, according to Siegel, are the hawkish politics of a large portion of the federation’s leadership.

Those politics manifest in some of the federation’s programming and hiring decisions. Flat-tax advocate and former Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes headlined the group’s 2012 fundraising dinner.


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